Statement by Georges Dassis, President of the European Economic and Social Committee, at the conference on "Energy and digital mutations: impact on employment and role of economic and social actors in Europe"
Confrontations Europe Brussels, 25 November 2015 Thank you very much. This might seem rather topsy-turvy - French people speaking English, Greeks speaking French ... but that's Europe.
Thank you very much for inviting me to speak at this conference.
I must admit that I was worried because the European Economic and Social Committee, as the home of organised civil society in Europe, must be open to representative civil society associations and organisations and support their work, but when the figure of three hundred people was mentioned I was a little nervous: this room cannot hold that many. As a result of recent events, there are fewer people attending than initially expected, but I think the room will fill up during the day.
I didn't come alone. Don't worry, it's not that I'm frightened of you - I have been accompanied by my outstanding colleague and good friend Pierre Jean Coulon, although we will have to leave you by ten o'clock. This is because we have to attend an important liaison group meeting. I invited Jean Pierre as he is the president of the Committee's TEN section, which deals in particular with transport and energy issues.
It is a great pleasure for me to open this conference at the Committee, not only because it gives the opportunity to meet up with old friends, but also because the challenges of energy transition and digital mutations, together with the role of the social partners, are questions with which we are very familiar here at the Committee. Our work is due to be presented later during the day by my colleagues Wolfgang Greif, Antonello Pezzini and Antonio Longo. Our commitment of course continues, as supporting these changes is a major priority for us. My colleagues here today will uphold the Committee's positions and commitment regarding these points.
The energy and digital transitions are inevitable and they open up very promising prospects for innovation and for more jobs. They also raise a number of challenges, which is why we need to think more at national and European level about the role of the social partners and the need for a regulatory framework. I am convinced this conference is a step in that direction.
Investing in energy transition would enable us to reduce our dependence on oil and gas, and to meet our greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. Transition is also a source of innovation and economic development that would allow us to create sustainable jobs that cannot be relocated. Since the renewable energy sector is more labour-intensive than the nuclear or fossil fuel sectors, the number of jobs created would be far greater and better distributed than those lost. And then there is the spin-off effect on employment: if less energy is imported, the money saved could be injected back into the economy through purchasing power, generating business and employment across all sectors of the economy.
In order to derive maximum benefit from this development - or, in the words of the economist Jeremy Rifkin, "revolution", combining energy transition and a complete renewal of the information system - the resulting challenges must be managed effectively. It is crucial to ensure that workers are retrained and supported in these new jobs. This requires substantial investment in technology, education, organisation, training in new job profiles, new financing methods and appropriate policies.
It must be stressed that if we ask people in Europe today if they support harnessing renewable sources of energy production, they will reply "yes" with one voice. But this transition must not be funded at the expense of disadvantaged sectors of society: transition cannot be imposed on thousands of families who today make their living from the extraction and use of coal without preparing an alternative well in advance. Neither can the bill for the new sources of energy be spread equally between all consumers: the least advantaged, those scarcely earning enough to meet their needs, cannot be expected to pay in the same way as better-off consumers.
The reason I mention this is that many community associations and trade unions who live from producing non-renewable energies are telling me, as president of the Committee, of their concerns.
Social dialogue must also be stepped up in the new sectors, in the new Member States and in the new types of employment, areas in which the actors are relatively unstructured. In Germany, for example, new businesses in the renewable energy sector are not covered by the agreements reached by the social partners, making their workers more vulnerable. There is no debate on the quality of jobs in this sector.
We also need a better European definition of "green" skills and jobs, in particular so as to improve statistical reports and analyses, with the active involvement of the social partners and civil society.
Digitisation is also transforming every sector of society and the economy: more than 50% of the EU workforce uses information and communication technologies daily in their work while in the finance sector, for example, this figure exceeds the 90% mark.
While digitisation gives workers greater autonomy and an opportunity to strike a better work-life balance, it can also undermine social protection systems and the quality of employment in Europe, by eroding existing collective bargaining practices, cutting social security and tax revenues and reducing workers' rights and worker participation mechanisms to empty shells.
If we are to head off these harmful impacts, it is crucial to draw up a strategic policy that provides:
firstly, an overhaul of education and vocational training, including lifelong learning, in order to help workers adjust to the new types of work generated by digital technology. To achieve this, public and private investment must be promoted;
and secondly, management of the major challenges of organising work such as the growth of teleworking, together with measures to help a better life-work balance. These developments are however also bringing the conventional perception we have of work, working time and the work place, as well as of businesses, into question, and they are leading to atypical forms of work with specific health and safety risks (such as burn-out). Consequently, the extent to which workers' private lives need enhanced protection should be measured.
Employment in the sharing economy is an especially delicate matter in this regard. In many cases, the employment relationship and legal status of the parties involved is unclear: are workers employed or self-employed?
The digital economy is increasingly capable of replacing work and it is estimated - by the Bruegel think-tank - that the EU Member States could lose between 40 and 60% of their jobs over the next 20 years as a result of automation driven by digitisation.
I would stress the need to put the question of distributing the volume of work available at the core of the debate. It is seemingly against logic that, while productivity has been rising non-stop for several years - and likewise overall wealth - the number of poor people, and even the of the working poor, has grown. We must face up to these paradoxical situations as part of an in-depth debate bringing together all the parties. And I mean all the parties: representatives of companies, of trade unions and all the civil society associations concerned by these issues.
The progress made by the European Union is still too timid and a better strategy needs to be adopted to deal with the consequences of energy and digital transition. In 2013 the Commission launched a broad coalition for employment in the digital sector, broaching the main issues (training and adjustment of syllabuses to jobs in the digital sector, mobility, certification, awareness-raising, innovative learning and teaching) but a sufficient budget was not forthcoming.
As these developments also challenge established practices in the area of social dialogue and collective bargaining, constructive dialogue between the social partners is needed to consider possible adjustments. The European Union can and must play its part in promoting this dialogue. Due to their practical experience of the economy and the labour market, the economic and social players are best placed to identify the most appropriate and best balanced solutions to respond to the challenges that we face.
European social dialogue must be based on the wealth of national social dialogue at the various levels: inter-professional, sectoral, regional and company. At these levels, however, coverage by collective agreements in a significant number of countries is currently growing weaker, undermining the position of workers and contributing to growing inequality. Social dialogue must be made more autonomous and greater importance attached to its contributions, while existing links between social dialogue and civil dialogue must be enhanced in order to ensure that the steps taken generate synergies and are complementary.
These, ladies and gentlemen, represent a few suggestions for discussion to launch the conference. Here at the European Economic and Social Committee we do not claim to be holders of the truth: our ambition is to support and expand reflection and discussion between business organisations, trade unions and organised civil society associations. I am delighted to see that many Committee members are here today to take part in this discussion.